Daniel

He fixed me with a cool stare as the water streamed over and through his body, taking away the last vestiges of the things that made him whole. He continued to stare silently as I dried him, dressed him and placed him on his bed, his final resting place. After tucking him in, I bid Daniel a final farewell before shutting the door.

When I opened it again, he was cooked and ready to eat. Of course, “Daniel” was the star of my Christmas lunch – a tarakihi fish baked in salt.

Every year since I started taking an interest in cooking, I’ve used Christmas as a chance to try out recipes using ingredients or techniques I wouldn’t normally use. In 2012 it was honey mustard glazed ham. In 2013 it was “Pinchy” the crayfish. And in 2014, it was “Daniel” the salt-baked fish.

The first time I saw the technique of baking something in salt was on one of last year’s episodes of My Kitchen Rules, where a team cooked beef in a salt casing. It’s an old technique that, as far as my extremely limited research has shown, probably originated in Carthage (north Africa). More commonly, I’ve seen recipes state that it’s an old Spanish or Italian technique of cooking.

I debated whether salt-baking would be worth the effort and I’ve decided it really is. It produced some of the most tender, well-seasoned fish I’ve ever eaten and it really doesn’t require that much effort. Even the amount of salt wasn’t as ridiculous as I initially thought it would be. While recipes call for rock or sea salt (more expensive but preferred because the larger granules allow the salt mixture to form more easily), I found it worked perfectly well with a combination of table salt and sea salt.

Here is the recipe I followed. Just a little tip: apparently it’s best to leave the scales on the fish, which is what I did, but some recipes make no distinction. The scales prevent the fish from being over-salted but if you’ve found this otherwise then do let me know!

Have a go and take pleasure in cracking open that beautiful golden salt casing!

Salt-baked Tarakihi fish. Photo: Tao Lin

Salt-baked Tarakihi fish. Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

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Lovin’ it: Homemade burgers

It wasn’t long ago that rainbow figurines of my childhood frolicked in their eternal happiness everywhere you looked in my house: on my tiny white book shelf, on the ledge from which my curtains hang and even hiding in the grass in my garden. I’m embarrassed to admit that those plastic dalmatians, mermaids and Looney Toons came with two chewy pieces of bread, a slice of pickle, sometimes processed cheese and something that was meant to be meat, all wrapped up in the most famous golden arches in the world. Yes, that’s right, many of the toys from my childhood came from McDonald’s Happy Meals.

For as long as I can remember, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC have always just been down the road from my house. There used to be a Pizza Hut restaurant as well but that closed down when I was in high school and a Carl’s Jr has recently risen – and flourished – in its place.

For a time when I was at primary school, it was a regular occurrence having reheated pizza and deep fried chicken for breakfast on Sunday mornings. And to respond to what you’re probably all thinking, no I wasn’t a particularly fat kid. I did athletics and gymnastics, and I was also blessed with a hyper-speed metabolism. But I know this doesn’t make eating all that fatty food any more acceptable.

I don’t blame my parents for letting me eat so much fast food. When we look back on those times now, my mum always says the same thing: “We didn’t know any better”. Neither of my parents eat much junk food now and they’re two of the fittest “older” people I know. They went swimming every single day for about two decades and have only recently started cutting that down (getting older, and stuff).

Despite the questionable quality of food I sometimes ate during my childhood, it still didn’t put me off burgers in the long run. But, I’ve moved on from tiny squashed McD’s cheeseburgers to burgers that tend to be more hearty, more fresh, made with more love.

My dad works for Tip Top Bread, which makes the burger buns for Carl’s Jr here. He’s allowed to take two bags of bread home from work each day and a couple of weeks ago on Friday night he brought home several Carl’s Jr burger buns. I knew immediately what I wanted for dinner. My parents don’t eat meat so I decided to make a fish burger for them and a beef burger for myself and Andrew.

I used tarakihi, which is a white fish, marinated for a couple of hours in lemon juice and garlic, then seasoned with salt and pepper. This was fried in the skillet. For the beef, I seasoned mince with salt, pepper, garlic, onions, dried oregano, paprika and dijon mustard. This was mixed with a lightly beaten egg, refrigerated for about an hour, and rolled into balls, which were flattened into patties when I cooked them on the skillet.

There were also salad greens, gherkins and melted cheese in the burgers but something I feel quite proud of is the sauce I made. I couldn’t decide what sauce to use for my burgers and consequently I spent a very long time looking around on the internet. Surprisingly, nothing really caught my attention until I chanced upon this link: http://americanfood.about.com/od/keytipstechniques/r/secsauce.htm

Big Mac sauce. I love Big Mac sauce! At least, I remember loving Big Mac sauce. Thinking more healthily though, I decided not to follow this recipe but instead adapted one of my own using greek yoghurt. I actually found another Big Mac sauce recipe here, if anyone is interested.

Here’s what I used for my sauce:

1/2 cup natural greek yoghurt (full fat)
1 tbsp dijon mustard
4 tsp diced gherkins
1 tsp vinegar from the gherkin jar
1 tbsp minced onion
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt

Mix it all up, dollop it on and top with a toasted bread bun.

Served with oven-baked fries, these burgers made for no left-overs and a meal that disappeared before anyone had the time to say, “I’m lovin’ it!”

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

A lesson about rice

Paella’s done and dusted and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt is how deceptive rice is when it’s uncooked. Considering I’ve lived off rice almost every day for as long as I can remember, you would think I’d understand this but nope, definitely not after judging how much paella I ended up with tonight (heaps). No need to despair though, it’s all going to a good and well-deserving cause (my boyfriend’s lunch for the next week).

We worked off two recipes found here and here. We ended up doing one seafood and one with chicken and chorizo – nothing quite as exciting as rabbit…

Both used stock made from salted water and prawn heads – might have chucked in some thyme for no reason as well!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

While that simmered away, we got onto prepping all the non-rice components: sautéing the chorizo, chicken, onions, ginger, bell pepper and tomato paste. I tossed the chicken with some Portuguese chicken seasoning, which is essentially paprika, chilli and lemon, before cooking it.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Added arborio rice (about 400ml to each pan – WAY too much for 4 people, by the way) and kinda tossed that around until it looked like it was translucent. To be honest I couldn’t tell for the chicken paella because of the paprika and everything in the seasoning so just winged it.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

We added the stock after that so the rice was just submerged. This is where I kind of got a bit lost because I wasn’t sure if we were meant to keep adding stock the whole way through until it was cooked al dente and time to caramelise the rice on the bottom (the “socarrat”). I’m fairly certain this is what the recipes called for so that’s what we did.

For the caramelisation, I didn’t want to burn the rice so didn’t push the heat up too high, which ended up not being quite enough. What did happen, though, was because of the inadequately sized pans and the large amount of everything else, we ended up with unevenly cooked rice and some of it ended up browned earlier on in the cooking process. I ended up having to scrape that off and move everything around a bit so it wouldn’t burn – a move I’m sure paella purists would condemn.

Once the “caramelisation” was done, the heat was turned off and the deliciousness was covered with foil for about 15-20 mins.

When I think about it, paella is actually a really simple dish but it requires a bit of experimenting and patience to get right. Like I said in my previous post, I didn’t want to ruin my memory of paella in Barcelona and I don’t think I have, but I also don’t think I did it justice, either. When prompted, my fellow diners said it tasted “really good” and “awesome” but I’m not quite as convinced.

I felt there was a flavour missing, or perhaps all the flavours were there, it was just that they weren’t strong enough. Perhaps a dash of lemon juice? A better stock? I’m not sure…Also, I think next time I would leave the chicken and fish out until later on in the cooking process; once they’re cooked off, put them aside and then add them in closer to the finishing point, otherwise they come out overcooked.

It was a good meal anyway and I learned a lot, especially never to underestimate the potential of uncooked rice!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin